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Cover story

Uncle Sam hustles to keep the ranks filled

Keeping the military ranks filled with able-bodied soldiers is no easy task. This series takes a look at some of the strategies -- from video games to, increasingly, money for college -- used to attract young people to the military. Next week’s installment investigates the growing presence of military programs and military academies in the public school system.

First in a series


Aralanis Clayton, a senior at Dunbar Vocational High School on the South Side of Chicago, is a muscular boy with cinnamon-colored skin and a yes-ma’am/no-ma’am politeness that’s endearing. His mother’s only son and the middle child of a large family, he comes across as a sensitive, conscientious kid. In his room, amid the sports posters and model racing cars are photos of wide-eyed toddlers and preschoolers -- his nephews, cousins, a godson.

Aralanis wants to be an architect. When he was small, he watched a lot of Home Gardening TV and taught himself how to draw buildings “just by looking.”

“I want to do interior decorating,” he says quietly.

This summer, Aralanis plans to enlist in the Army Reserve. It’s one of the perverse paradoxes of the boy’s life that his only perceived path to studying architecture could include a detour through war. He seems clueless about the troop build-up in the Gulf. His friends told him he wouldn’t see combat, that he “could do computers or drive a truck.” But if it comes to that, “Well then, I’ll do what I gotta do,” Aralanis says.

His mom was in the Army. He always wanted to be in the Army; he has even worked his way up to lieutenant in his high school’s Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC). He is hoping to get stationed in Virginia, near Hampden College where, his cousin said, they have a good architecture program.

In recent months NCR has taken a look at recruitment and at the significant time and resources the military now devotes to keeping the ranks filled with young men and women. The military’s efforts include extensive advertising campaigns and a growing presence in public school systems.

This year the U.S. military will recruit 330,000 Americans for its active and reserve units. With the suspension of the draft in 1973, after three decades of conscription, America returned to relying on an all-volunteer force. Unlike their Israeli or Greek counterparts, young Americans are not mandated to give two years of their life to the military. Not for now, at least.

Uncle Sam gets his soldiers another way, through big bucks hustle and an impressive array of promotional tactics. The promotions arsenal includes cutting edge television ads; a free computer game with deadly combat in virtual reality; glossy brochures prominently displayed in every high school guidance counselor’s office in the country; recruiting ships; recruiting 16-wheelers; recruiting vans; recruiting stations tucked in the corners of America’s inner cities. All of that is backed up by a cadre of recruiters, 15,000 at last count, who pound the pavement, make phone calls, staff tables in malls, go into high schools and make more phone calls in order to pitch a job that offers enticing perks and, although this is rarely mentioned, a chance to kill or be killed.

Judging from the numbers, the sales pitches have been successful. With the exception of a drop in enlistments in 1998-99, all four branches of the armed forces have met or exceeded their recruitment quota since 1980, according to Major Brenda Long, director of Accession Policy.

This year the defense department allocated $2.7 billion for recruitment, a pittance relative to the Pentagon’s overall budget of $312 billion. But per capita spending on recruitment has increased by one half in the past decade. In 2003, the military will spend $13,000 to get a kid all the way to boot camp -- one and a half times the amount the Chicago Public School Systems spent last year to educate a child.

Even with those resources, persuading someone to sign up isn’t easy. Sgt. Chris Lebanon, an army recruiter from 1989-91, described getting enlistments as “one of the toughest jobs” she had in the military.

“I was calling kids. I was beating down doors. If you don’t make your quotas, you put in longer hours,” she said. According to Lebanon, Army recruiters have one of the highest divorce rates after the Rangers and Special Forces.

“Some people find it hard to sell the military,” said Sgt. First Class Eric White, a former army recruiter for 10 years and now an instructor for JROTC at Carver Military Academy in Chicago. “It’s not a commodity. It’s not like buying a car. It’s nothing you can actually see or taste. It’s a dream. It’s a vision you got to sell.”

And the vision comes in many different packages.

Recruiting literature presents the military as the optimum choice for career development, even self-development. Promotional literature for the Navy advertises “career opportunities that will take you as far as you want to go -- and get you there faster.”

Each branch offers a variety of enlistment options, many designed to accommodate the academic situation of potential recruits. The Delayed Entry Program allows a person to enlist immediately but delay reporting for duty up to one year and is commonly used among high school students. Most branches of the armed services have negotiated arrangements with colleges and universities to grant credit for military training, defer enrollment or offer courses to the enlisted. The Army Recruiting Command reports that there are more than 1,500 colleges willing to defer enrollment of active duty soldiers and reservists until they complete initial enlistment requirements. The military’s ROTC program offers full scholarships to the eligible who want college first and then enlistment, while the Montgomery GI Bill provides partial scholarships for those going to college after their time in the service.

The military/college liaison provides one of the most persuasive incentives for enlistment and supports the defense department’s longstanding goal to elevate the skill level of the armed forces. Constantly comparing itself to the civilian sector, the defense department views college as a competitor for the pool of available youth. This year, the military plans to increase the amount of scholarship available to recruits.

Most branches of the armed services have a College Fund, tuition assistance offered as an added incentive for recruits who enlist in hard-to-fill Military Operational Services. In the Army, a soldier who signs up for the infantry, Special Forces or combat engineering would qualify for the fund.

In addition, any veteran with an honorable discharge can apply for GI benefits to defray college costs. The amount given applicants is contingent upon time served. For example, a soldier with two years of active duty receives monthly installments of $732 for 36 academic months. Those with three to six years of military service receive up to $900 a month.

Through a combination of College Fund and GI benefits, the military can provide a maximum of $50,000 in tuition assistance.

Because many entering the Army already have a college education, the Army is now offering student loan repayment as an incentive, according to spokesman Lt. Col. Ryan Yantis. The Army offers $65,000 toward student loans to those who enlist for three years in active duty. Yantis described the arrangement as the military’s payback for the benefits of acquiring a soldier already trained in a specific field.

In 2000, the Army launched Partnership for Youth Success (PaYS) a program in which dozens of U.S. companies and nonprofit organizations offer preferential hiring to soldiers who serve two to four years then join the job market. Initiated during a time of low unemployment and low enlistment -- in 1999 the Army missed its recruiting quota for active duty by 6,300 -- PaYS was designed to undercut competition for youth employment between the military and civilian sector.

“We recognize we can no longer be competing for the same young people,” Suzanne Carlton, then special assistant to the Army Chief of Staff told USA Today in June 2000. The newspaper described PaYS as “an unprecedented alliance between the military and corporations.” The Army bills it as both a recruiting device and a way to “reconnect America with the Army.”

As a recruiting device, PaYS has been effective, enticing 13,825 recruits into the Army over the past two and a half years.

Kevin Ramirez, who works for the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, admits the military has been successful in dissuading young people from considering the context of their career option.

“Contrary to what many people think, a young person who joins the military isn’t thinking about war, oddly enough,” said Ramirez, 28, coordinator for the committee’s Military Out of Our Schools Program. “The reason for this is the way they advertise the military. Shooting guns, things blowing up, bombs dropping. That isn’t in the commercials. Instead, the benefits of military life are emphasized.”

According to Ramirez, “Job skills training, the opportunity to travel and money for college are the three pillars that hold up the poverty draft” whose constituents are low-income, urban youth of color and rural whites.

Established in 1948, the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors bills itself as the Consumer Reports for people thinking about joining the military. The organization maintains a hotline for soldiers who want out, offers technical assistance to kids deciding to leave the Delayed Enlistment Program and provides counter-recruitment information for school communities, confronting JROTC and military access. The committee believes that if the military is going to call itself all-volunteer, everyone who joins should be a true volunteer; no one should enlist without deciding that he or she is willing to fight in a war -- and risk killing and dying without questioning why.

The organization points to recruiting statistics from Puerto Rico, where unemployment is twice the national average and annual per capita income very low, as a “glaring example” of the poverty draft at work. The committee says that in 1997 and 1998, the number of Army recruits from the island was 800 and 900, respectively, double the average for the Army’s 240 other recruiting companies.

According to a defense department study two years ago of the armed services population, neither the poor nor the wealthy are “well-represented among the backgrounds of new recruits.” Instead, active and reserve recruits come “primarily from families in the middle and lower middle socioeconomic strata.”

But statistics from the same study found that minorities, particularly blacks, are joining the military in disproportionately high numbers. Minorities represent 29 percent of the general population but account for 38 percent of all recruits. The Army, the largest branch of the armed services, is 45 percent minority; 30 percent of enlistees are blacks. While Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans enlist at a rate below or similar to their distribution in the general population, blacks are overrepresented, especially among active duty enlistments. Many of the new entrants are African-American women. In 2000, they made up 29 percent of all female recruits.

Black and Latino youth are a “hot commodity” for the Pentagon, says Ramirez. He and other observers claim the military has intensified its efforts in recent years to recruit youth of color.

They point out that in 1999, the Navy hired black filmmaker Spike Lee, director of “Malcolm X” and “Do the Right Thing,” to design a television ad. A year later, the Army hired Leo Burnett, a former multinational advertising agency that was bought out during downsizing last fall.

Burnett’s philosophy of advertising was “People no longer buy products; they buy lifestyles” and its clients included McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Nintendo. The Army’s contract with the advertising firm came after a drop in enlistments and at a time when the military wanted to make its recruiting messages more contemporary. Burnett developed the “dog tag” ads, featuring real soldiers rather than actors, and changed the Army’s slogan of 20 years, “Be All that You Can Be,” to “An Army of One.”

Burnett also subcontracted with two public relations firms specializing in marketing products to Hispanics and blacks respectively -- Cartel Creative, advertisers for JCPenney and the Girl Scouts, and Images USA. Images USA no longer contracts with the Army but the venture was successful while it lasted. During summer 2001 the firm’s promotional tactics garnered 5,000 “leads” -- cards filled out by young people who want to know more about enlistment.

Last fall, the Army launched a recruiting tool, appealing to youth of all colors -- “America’s Army: Operations,” a made-by-the-military computer combat game. Players are required to do things the “Army way” and go through basic training and offline missions before engaging in battles between the U.S. Army and a generic opposing force, garbed in ski masks or other clothing that mark them as terrorists. The instruction in marksmanship is unusually realistic, and sharpshooters can advance to sniper training. One scene of battle is an Alaskan pipeline pump station.

In his review for online magazine PC Games, writer Scott Osborne describes “America’s Army: Operations” as “one of the most ironic games ever. More than a few American politicians have bolstered their careers by condemning violence in popular entertainment, particularly in video games. Now the U.S. government, by way of the Army, has produced a computer game that’s all about realistic, deadly combat.”

With links to the Army Web site, the game is free and can be easily downloaded; a complimentary CD version was tucked into the November 2002 issue of PC Gamer, a popular magazine that reviews the latest computer games.

But not everyone can play. The game’s licensing agreement warns that “America’s Army” cannot be downloaded or exported to anyone from a country under U.S. embargo, including nationals or residents of Cuba, Haiti, Iraq, Libya, Yugoslavia, North Korea, Iran and Syria.

Counter-recruiters say that over the past two decades, the military has successfully inserted itself into American society to reclaim the positive status it had before Vietnam. They say that Hollywood’s pro-military films such as “Black Hawk Down,” “Collateral Damage” and “Hart’s War” and the new reality TV series “Military Diaries” are ultimately recruitment ads in large format, trivializing war and the day-to-day reality of military.

“Since the draft ended the military began to be a lot more strategic and intelligent about becoming more invasive into civilian institutions,” says Rick Jahnkow, founder of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft. Nowhere is that well-cultivated intrusion more evident, Jahnkow believes, than in the public school system.

Claire Schaeffer-Duffy is a freelance writer and member of the Worcester, Mass., St. Therese Catholic Worker Community, which believes in pursuing nonviolent solutions to conflict.

National Catholic Reporter, March 21, 2003